Grand Canyon

Duck on a rock

An odd geologic formation known as “Duck on a Rock” at the Grand Canyon.


We were arguing over the meaning of the word oe.

It was the last day of the Scrabble tournament.  I did fairly well on Friday and Saturday, and now it’s down to the final three games on Sunday morning.

I’m fueled up, having had my Cheerios, banana and almond milk in our hotel room.  Water? Check.  Long rack?  Check.  Pens?  Check.  Score sheets?  Check.

After sitting atop the leader board in my division for part of the day yesterday, I dropped down to second place late.  I have to win all three games today to finish in first.  No pressure.  Hey, I tell myself, I’ll be “in the money” even if I lose them all.  After all, there are cash prizes down to sixth place.

I lose the first game to an old lady from Israel.  By a lot.  I wreck my spread by leaving an open S on the board at the end, allowing my opponent to bingo out.  She chastises me for failing to engage in defensive blocking.  Not wishing to be thrown out of the tournament right before the end, I do not utter any of the Scrabble-acceptable words that I feel would be appropriate in that situation.  I square the tiles, mumble “good luck” and quickly leave the room.  What I really want to do is scream.

Trounced by the blue hairs again.  “Trounced” isn’t even the right word.  Crumpled up like a used candy wrapper is more like it.  Hemingway was right about grace under pressure.  I start burping up Cheerios.

Next, I have to play the woman who’s been sitting in the number one position for the last few games. That is, since I’ve been unceremoniously knocked off my throne.  Okay, I figure, I must be in third now.  But I’ll probably lose to her, go down to fourth, and then finish up in either third or fifth.  That depends on with whom I am paired for the final “king of the hill” round.

I return from the rest room and find myself standing in the aisle at my opponent’s table. Her previous opponent is conducting a “post mortem” (commenting on what went wrong and right during the game), marking up her tally sheet, slowly gathering her belongings before she finally moves on and I get to sit down.

I ask my opponent where she’s from. (It’s polite to be friendly to your opponent, even though you want to place a curse on her rack, her tiles, and her mother’s teapot.  Easy there, cowboy. She wants the same for you, don’t you know.)

Florida, she tells me, near Fort Lauderdale.  I tell her about my grandparents, my aunt and my wife’s friend, all who hail from the area.  We figure out who goes first and shake the tile bag.  That’s when she asks if I would mind if she runs to the rest room.

“Of course, go right ahead,” I say.  Some things you don’t mess with, regardless of the fate you might wish on your opponent.  You don’t want anyone peeing in their pants. Not to mention that such a thing would be horrible karma.  Next time it will be me who is doing the pee-pee dance and begging pardon of someone sitting across the table.

“I might be a little while,” she warns me.

“That’s fine,” I reply. “Take your time.”  What do I care?  More time to relax.  If I’m just going to lose to this shark, there’s no point in rushing it.

I close my eyes for a minute and remember yesterday, when I, too, had to use the rest room between rounds and took a bit longer than might be expected.  As I exited the rest room, here comes the director.  “Your opponent was worried about you,” he said.  Can you believe that the director was actually headed to the men’s room to track me down in a stall?  I had to bite my tongue to avoid blurting out “my opponent doesn’t give a shit about me!”  (Shit being the operative word when you have the kind of GI problems that I do.). On second thought, I should have said, “Oh, sorry, director, I was busy jacking off!”  Grrrr!

I open my eyes and the chair across the table from me remains empty.  All around me, I hear tile bags being shaken and word scores being announced.  Here comes the director.

“Who’s your opponent?”  I tell him.  Then I fill him in on the details.  “She went to the rest room. She said she might be a little bit.”

The director starts my opponent’s clock and tells me to neutralize it when she shows up.  About a minute later, she does.  Here comes the director.

It’s not like she should have been surprised.  The rule about starting your clock if you’re late was posted in the tournament flyer.  “Didn’t you tell him I was in the rest room?” asks my opponent accusingly the moment Mr. Director leaves the table.  I tell her I did.  “Why didn’t you tell him I’d be a while?”  Now she’s just sounding whiny.  I assure her that I relayed the message and that, as far as I’m concerned, she can take as long a rest room break as she likes.  I don’t tell her that I’ve been there.

Phoenix, about 7 or 8 years ago.  Same director.  I was having a particularly bad GI day and ended up stuck in the rest room between games.  The director started the clock in my absence; upon my return, I found myself left with just ten minutes to play a 25-minute game.  I was so angry that I rushed through the game on pure adrenaline, practically throwing my tiles onto the board the moment my opponent hit the clock.  I won, too, to the surprise of the elderly gentleman from L.A. sitting across the table from me.

I thought of this recently while watching World Cup speed skating from Stavanger, Norway on TV.  The announcer described the demeanor of one of the Dutch competitors as one of “barely suppressed rage.”  Uh-huh, I thought.  I get it.  The secret I know is that its application is not limited to physical pursuits.  I’ve seen how it works with mental ones, too.

But here, at the Grand Canyon, I know that losing just one minute off the clock would have little effect on my first-place opponent.  What did not occur to me until later is that having the director start your clock in your absence presents a psychological disadvantage.  It may not have been a serious psych-out in this case, but I do think my opponent’s nerves were rattled.  I kept the major bingo lanes shut down and generally played in a more defensive style, having been schooled in spades in the previous game.  My opponent is behind and begins grasping at straws.  She plunks down the phony OUTWRINGS, which I promptly challenge off.  I managed to pull off a win.

I head back to the rest room while waiting for the pairings for the final match of the tournament to be posted.  The loo is disgusting, as always.  A lot of these guys seem to have chosen Scrabble over archery as their chosen pastime simply because they can’t shoot straight.  I step my shoes into a puddle of sticky pee as I approach the urinal.  I see guys turn around and walk out as soon as they finish their business.  “Wash your hands, pig!” is what I’m thinking.  Some of my fellow Scrabblers don’t appear to be fully socialized.  I wonder if they have mama issues.

In the playing room, there is a hubbub of conversation as we wait.  There is talk of flights and airports and shuttles.  I mention that we drove all the way from northern California and had a tire blow out on Interstate 40 in the middle of the desert.  “You’re hardcore!” opines one of my fellow players.  I roll my eyes, but I guess I am.  A lot of us move heaven and earth and spend thousands of dollars per year just to play this silly game.

Someone alludes to “the incident.”  The word the director used in telling us about it during the pre-games announcement that morning.

If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, you may not appreciate just how remote a location it is.  This place is truly in the middle of nowhere.  I suppose that helps to preserve its natural beauty.  But for those of us who have no interest in camping and who generally prefer to experience the great outdoors through works of spectacular photography, the nine-building Maswik Lodge is just a bit out of our comfort zones.  My wife’s attitude has understandably deteriorated from mildly annoyed to frustrated to truly pissed off in the last three days.  She can work from wherever we are (have laptop, will travel), but depends upon having a reliable internet connection at all times.  Unfortunately, the connectivity up here is a joke.  Uploads and downloads proceed at a snail’s pace.  Email sent first thing in the morning doesn’t arrive until evening.  My wife’s work is backed up as it is, and she is about ready to tear her hair out.  “If you come to a tournament here again, you’re going by yourself!” she informs me.

It doesn’t help that the food here, well, just plain sucks.  Served cafeteria style, you take a tray and walk around to the various food stations.  As a vegan, I have the privilege of standing in one line for a baked potato, in another for some black beans, and in a third for a Tepa burger on a gluten-free bun.  By the time you make it to the cashier’s station, most of your food is cold.  Visitors get to pay premium prices for the privilege of queuing up like cattle for cold food.  And then they don’t even get your order right.  “This is the weirdest looking veggie burger I have ever seen,” is my first thought upon applying mustard to a grey-looking patty that strikes me as what airline food must look like in a Communist country.  I take one bite and spit it out.  Let’s just say that the taste of dead animal flesh is unmistakable.  I get up and look for a manager, who is already fumbling his way through an apology to another dissatisfied customer.  When it’s my turn, he explains that he’s been having a lot of problems with his interns from Thailand.  Apparently, they don’t know the difference between a Tepa burger and a turkey burger.  Then the manager is summoned to the table next to mine to take a complaint from one of my fellow Scrabble players.  She had ordered a Cuban and was served a Reuben.  Not that there’s a language barrier or anything.

And then there is the cold.  And the dark.  At around 7,000 feet in elevation, it gets bloody cold here in the November night.  Granted, it’s not exactly sunny and 75 in northern California this time of year, but temps down in the 20s are a bit out of our league.  The slightest breeze carries a bitter bite that chills you right through.  As for the darkness, the dozens of miles between the park and the nearest city lights render the nights pitch black.  Walking down the road from the main building to one’s accommodations, you can barely see the hand in front of your face.   We use the flashlight function on our iPhones to see where to step.  Others, however, are not so lucky.  I suppose disaster was inevitable.  Two Scrabblers, walking back to their rooms in the thick blackness.  One woman misses the curb and falls.  Her face gets pretty scraped up.  Her companion bends down to help her, and she falls, too.  Breaks her collar bone.  Has to be airlifted out to a hospital in Flagstaff.  The director tells us he will visit our unfortunate colleague in the hospital on his way home to Phoenix.

Back at my table, the discussion turns to the pluralization of “vowel twos” (2-letter words consisting solely of vowels) — which words take an S and which don’t.  Ae?  No, it’s an interjection, an exclamation.  Ai?  Yes, it’s a three-toed sloth.  Oi?  No, another interjection (although I know from playing online that ois is perfectly acceptable in the Collins dictionary, used by Scrabble players in most of the world outside the U.S. and Canada).  What about oe?  Does it take an S?  “Yes,” I immediately chime in.  “It’s a bird.”  I detect a dirty look shot in my direction.  “From New Zealand,” I add, authoritatively.  A fellow player seems pleased, declaring that she will henceforth think of a bird whene’er she sees the word oe plunked on the board, and will know that it can be pluralized.

“No!” cries the player seated next to me.  “It’s a wind!”  She jumps up and runs to her travel bag in the corner to rummage for her Scrabble dictionary.  Bird or wind, we’ve already established that it takes an S.  But her mission is to prove that she’s right and I’m wrong.

She plops back down beside me and riffles the pages, seeking the letter O listings.  Oe, she shows me, “a Faeroese whirlwind.”  That smug look of victory.

“I stand corrected,” I mumble sheepishly, wondering where on earth I got the idea that an oe is a Kiwi ornithological species.

The final game gets underway and I am desperate to win.  I must be in second place after winning the last game, I figure.  A victory here could put me in first place and net me a $500 prize.  I play defensively again, hoping it pans out just like before.  Between the two of us, we manage to block most of the bingo lanes and effectively shut down the board.  Neither of us is able to get off a bingo in this low-scoring game.  But my opponent is able to lay down QUITS for 61 points, handing her the win.

I am sorely disappointed, my first-place dreams dashed.  I try to console myself by thinking that I can probably still take third.  Someone had borrowed my clock, and I track it down after the score slip is turned in.  I pack up my stuff and walk out into the vestibule to take a look at the leader board.  Games are still going on, so I know that what is posted represents the state of the tournament after the penultimate game, not the final.  The director has drawn a line across the chart below the sixth-place player, to indicate that the money winners lie above that line.  My name appears below that line.  In estimating my standing, I didn’t take into account the predation done to my spread in the first game of the day.

I am totally disgusted.  I buttonhole the director to thank him for a great tournament and beg off the award ceremony, pleading a very long drive home ahead of me.  I grab the handle on my heavy Scrabble bag and pull it through the lobby and out to the curb, where I lean against a wall.  I take in the bracing air as I text my wife to tell her I’m done.  She tells me she’s in the cafeteria having a sandwich and asks me to join her.  But I don’t want to go back in there.  No way.  When I am upset, I cry.  So I ask my wife to come on out whenever she’s done.  A few minutes later, she shows up with half a sandwich and fries in a Styrofoam take-out container.  We walk to the car and then head south, out of the park, stopping in Tusayan, the first town, for me to stuff my face with baked potatoes, care of the drive-through at Wendy’s.

After a 12-hour drive home, the next day I look up oe in each of the dictionaries in my collection.  It takes me a while to find it.

First, I consult my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate with the red cover, a sentimental favorite of mine despite its age.  My parents gave it to me around the time I started high school, and today it has a place of honor on my desk at work.  Nothing.  I then check my employer’s standard, the American Heritage.  Still nothing.  I suppose oe was deemed a sufficiently esoteric word that it didn’t make the cut in the editing process.

I check my gigantic Random House Webster’s Unabridged, where I do find oe listed — as an interjection meaning “oy.”  Well, that’s surely not going to take an S!  Next, I go to my Chambers, my British dictionary.  OE is listed as an abbreviation for Old English, but that’s it.  What am I to make of this phantom word that has somehow made its way into the Scrabble dictionary?  It’s a bird!  It’s a wind!  It’s Superman!  Uh, it doesn’t exist?

Finally, I reach for the last dictionary on my bookshelf, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed., 1997).  And lo and behold, there it is, oe in all its glory.  It is indeed a Faeroese whirlwind.

I feel stupid, but not as stupid as I do the following day when the tournament results are posted online.  Apparently, I ended up in seventh place, just out of the money.  However, the woman in sixth place won a $200 cash prize for finishing highest above seed.  Due to a rule that players can’t win more than one cash prize, the sixth place award went to the seventh place finisher, yours truly.

And then I feel stupider still when, two days later, my winnings arrive in the mail in the form of a check for $150.  The attached note states that it is for “highest place finisher in the lower half.”  The director asks that I email him to let him know that the check arrived.

I do so.  I don’t mention that I didn’t finish in the lower half.


We were surprised to encounter an elk at the side of the road at Desert View, near the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.



I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…

November, No NaBlo


3800 feet up in El Dorado County.  Taken a few weeks ago, when the deciduous species among the evergreens were just beginning to display their autumn color.

It’s Halloween this week, and that can only mean one thing:  The annual start of NaNoWriMo and NaBloPoMo.

As much as I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, I’m not going to kid myself into thinking that I have it in me to write a novel.  I made a few very halfhearted (quarterhearted?  eighthhearted?) attempts in that direction in the halcyon days of my youth, which I always quickly abandoned due to a combination of lack of imagination, paucity of ambition and plain old horrible writing.  So good luck to the NaNoWriMo crew, and may the fruits of your labor not languish in your sock drawer or molder in the slush pile.

Having said no to the novel, what does that leave me with?  Well, there’s always memoir (everyone has a story, right?), but I’ve already written one of those.  Poetry?  I’ve dabbled in doggerel since the age of ten and, well, my poetry just plain sucks.  In the immortal words of A.E. Housman, “it gives a chap the belly-ache.”

That pretty much leaves me with blogging, among the few media other than Tweets and Facebook posts that one can get away with doing badly.  Doing it really badly may even yield the reward of many comments.  You may not wish to read such comments prior to imbibing in a pint or two, but there you are.

I have participated in NaBloPoMo thrice.  Each time resulted in at least a modicum of satisfaction (just for finishing, if nothing else).  One must respect the achievement of those who finish the marathon, even if in last place.  I’m far too old to be a millennial who was raised on trophies for participation alone.  Still, as Dr. Phil intoned during a recent episode of his show, the law student who graduates last in his or her class is still called an attorney.  (I have a few issues with that one, but okay.)

The above notwithstanding, there are only so many times one can make an effort as intense as that required by NaBloPoMo without going cross-eyed at the thought of doing it yet again.  If further excuses are needed, I will cite preparation for an upcoming Scrabble tournament in Arizona and hours at work that seem to grow longer and longer by the week.  Daily blogging was certainly a lot easier when I was unemployed.  Nothing against NaBlo, but I am a lot happier being employed, thank you.

It seems a compromise is in order.  While I will definitely not be blogging daily during November, I will endeavor to post at least weekly.

I figure that if my attention is diverted elsewhere, at least I can write about it.


Three Visits With My Parents


Have prayer book, will travel . . .

Among the effects of having one’s children early is that when you’re old and would like your kids to take care of you, they’ll be old, too.  Granted, they won’t be as old as you are, but old nevertheless.  As in you’ll be able to go out to eat together and both of you will get the senior discount.  Both of you will be getting Social Security checks in the mail.  I mean, think about it.  When you’re 85, they’ll be 65.

I visited my parents three times during the month of September.  That’s a total of 18 hours of driving.  The first time was a birthday party for my wife’s little niece.  Then came Rosh Hashannah.  And finally, Yom Kippur.

My parents are 83 years old and they don’t go to synagogue anymore.  My father never went to synagogue to begin with (being somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum) and my mother has had some type of falling out with the synagogue she had been attending.  There are three synagogues in her area, and she finds them all to be money-grubbing.  I am inclined to agree.  I appreciate the need of a synagogue to pay the light bill and the expenses of keeping up the building, not to mention the cost of running its programs, but the strong-arm tactics that they use to squeeze money out of attendees are a bit much.  These days, many synagogues have financial directors who want to see your tax returns to determine how much you earn and to calculate how much you should be paying toward support of the congregation.  It has become fairly standard in the United States for synagogues to charge non-members hefty fees for attending High Holy Day services.  And even organizations like Chabad that claim never to require payment of participants hold an endless round of dinners and speakers before or after services, requesting that attendees pay hefty fees for attendance.  Disclosure:  I do support one of our local Chabad congregations and, frankly, I’m getting sick of their constant emails begging for money.

In my mother’s case, the discomfort engendered by this situation is exacerbated by the fact that she drags my reluctant father with her every time she attends synagogue.  This is mostly because my mother doesn’t drive anymore (she’s perfectly capable, but has chosen to have my car-loving father do all the driving for the past 20 years or so), but also because she won’t go anywhere alone.  She says it makes her feel like a widow.  (In some respects, she is.  My father won’t admit that he’s lost a large part of his hearing, which has already resulted in some dangerous situations in which he could not hear my mother calling him.  Also, they sit in separate rooms and do their own things most of the time.)

At age 83, my parents seem to feel that they are at the stage of life when they can pretty much say whatever they want without consequences.  This has borne some interesting results.  It has caused a number of ugly moments between Mom and my wife, for example.  And when it comes to synagogue, my father, a nonbeliever, feels compelled to comment on the rabbi’s teachings or even challenge them outright.  The rabbi’s young son doesn’t help the situation by running out of the sanctuary to loudly announce to his mother “He’s at it again!”


On the patio at Mom and Dad’s.  Notice the hummingbird at the feeder.

My mother says she’s tired of “getting it from both ends” (the rabbi and my father).  Under the circumstances, I don’t blame her for passing on synagogue attendance.  For both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, I made the trip down to the Central Valley, mahzor (prayer book) in hand and held my own little service for Mom’s benefit.  On Rosh Hashannah, we did this at the kitchen table (with my uninterested father sitting out on the patio), and on Yom Kippur, outdoors.  The weather was fine (unlike the freezing cold temperatures that we remember from High Holidays of yore on the east coast) and we got to watch the hummingbirds at the feeder and the sheep next door while we atoned for our sins and prayed for forgiveness.  It was a kick to get my cantorial singing voice on and, all told, it was a rather moving experience to spend this time with Mom.  I can’t help but wonder how many more opportunities I will have to do this.


Mom had a large container full of salad that was past its prime, so I got to feed the sheep next door.  There were only three rams and the entire flock of ewes was pregnant.  Baaaa!

The weekend after Rosh Hashannah, still hanging out at my parents’ house, Mom decided to lay a heavy on me by providing instructions for her burial.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  She wants to be laid to rest with her parents at the family plot in New York City.  My wife and I visited the graves of my grandparents there both this year and last during two trips to the eastern seaboard.  Two plots occupied, six more vacant.  It was hard not to think of a time when two more plots will be occupied.  I now know that my mother wishes to be buried directly in front of her mother.  I also know which funeral home to use, as well as a little about what must be done to fly a body from Fresno to LaGuardia.  Uh, um, I guess I wasn’t really ready for this.  But guess what, it looks like the time has arrived for me to grow up and face the facts.  My parents aren’t going to be around forever.

Perhaps the most intriguing factor in this little drama is the uncertainty involved.  Will Dad go first?  He keeps pointing out that, statistically, the husband usually dies before the wife.  My mind fills with pictures of supporting a grief-stricken Mom on a cross-country flight, preceded by taking a screamer down the 99 in the middle of the night when we get the news.  How fast can we throw a week’s worth of clothes in a suitcase?  Yikes.  And then, what would become of Mom?  She doesn’t want to live all alone in that big house way out where the cattle graze on the rangeland.  There is no room for her to live with us in our rented tiny house, where my wife and I are barely able to keep from tripping over one another.  She could always go live with one of my sisters (either the one in the Bay Area or the one in Boston), which I know would not be a particularly pleasant experience for her.  She wants me to retire so my wife and I can come live in her house and take care of her.  Let’s just say that this is unlikely.  There are too many reasons to count.

But what if Mom went first and Dad were left all alone?  He is a loner by nature and probably wouldn’t mind being in that house by himself.  But he doesn’t cook and, despite everything, I suspect that he’d be horribly lonely.  My wife and I were discussing this recently and we agreed that he probably wouldn’t live long if Mom went first.

Let us not forget that there is, at least from my perspective, a third scenario.  As I started off this post my mentioning, when you have children early, they get old right along with you.  I am no spring chicken myself.  Nor am I in the best of health.  What if I shuffle off this mortal coil before my parents do?  My wife knows that I am adamant about being buried here in California rather than having my dead body dragged across the country to a final resting place in (ick) Queens.  (My sisters don’t want to be buried there either, with the likely result that the remaining four plots will remain unoccupied for the next hundred years or so.)  But what of my parents then?  My father, who has long since informed me that if I die he will never forgive me (?), might not last long due to grief.  Perhaps the same is true of Mom.  I certainly hope not, but there it is.  I suppose my sisters will be particularly angry with me for dying when they realize that they now have to deal with Mom and Dad.  I giggle thinking of this.

Sigh.  The whole situation brings on a feeling not unlike that of an impending train wreck that cannot be avoided.  We are clearly heading down that track and all I can do is close my eyes and hold on tight.  I keep telling my parents that, considering their relatively good health, there is no reason that they should not live to 100.  I seriously hope they do.  I figure that things will eventually fall into place, one way or another.

In the meantime, my parents solicited my assistance in planning a celebration in honor of their 65th wedding anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussin’ and fightin’.  Sixty-five years of bickering and cussin’.  (Mom is bewildered that Dad goes around muttering “Shit!” and “Pain in the ass!” under his breath all day, failing to realize that he is referring to, um, her.)  Their anniversary date is Christmas Eve, just 78 days from this evening.  My sister and her husband are expected to be in California for other reasons around that time, so we’re hoping to arrange for all of us to be together.  We are planning to split the festivities into two parts.  One part will be with my sisters and some of the grandkids near my parents’ home in the Central Valley.  The other part will be with my wife’s family near our home in Sacramento (most of them live 40 to 80 miles north of here).  They are thinking of having a dinner at a Golden Corral, a family buffet place just down the street from us.  They want streamers and balloons.  And invitations.  Thoughts of printing costs and hand calligraphy flashed through my pea brain before I broke the news to Mom about a little thing called Facebook Events.  She knows we do most things electronically these days, but doesn’t want to know about it.  Fine, whatever works, she says.

By the way, I have been trying to convince my parents to purchase iPhones.  They have pre-paid cell phones, although they don’t know how to use most of the features (neither do I).  I think I made my best pitch yet when we were discussing the anniversary party.  Mom says she doesn’t know when it will be held exactly, as she doesn’t know when the school at which my sister teaches will be on vacation.  It’s a Jewish school, so she thought that Sis might be off during Hanukkah rather than around Christmas.  My sister recently moved from Dallas to Boston, so I am not aware of her current employer.  “What school is that?” I asked Mom.  She didn’t know either.  So I whipped out my phone, Googled Jewish day schools in Boston, and checked out a couple of links before Sis’ pic popped up on her school’s website.  Then it was just a matter of clicking around a bit to find the school calendar.  You’re in luck, Mom, she’s off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

My parents were appropriately impressed by what can be done with a smart phone — at least enough to allow me to show them the simple icons and the ease of accessing features.  “We’d never use most of that stuff,” my mother protested.

Guess what you’re getting for your anniversary, Mom and Dad!


It Was Just a Gun

black ribbon

Written after the carnage at the Bataclan nightclub in Paris.  Kept this to myself until now.  I can remain silent no more, and neither should you, my friends and readers.  Contact your elected representatives and let them know that enough is enough.

It’s just a gun that I keep in a drawer
under a pile of sweaters
or in a box on a closet shelf
next to some old love letters

It’s just a gun that I keep in my purse
or my pocket with my keys
or stuffed in the bottom of my lunch bag
next to the ham and cheese

It’s just a gun that I’ll never use
unless someone starts attacking
but I feel a lot safer walking down the street
since no one knows I’m packing

It’s just a gun that I might pull out
someday if the bullets start flying
and maybe I’ll be able to shoot the guy
so it’s him, not me, who’s dying

It was just a gun that my grandkids found
in its hiding place under my bed
now I’m laying roses at the little one’s grave
I still can’t believe he’s dead

It was just a gun that somehow went off
while I was cleaning it one day
though I didn’t intend to kill myself
in my coffin now I lay

It was just a gun that I kept for defense
’tis my Second Amendment right
I never imagined I’d pull it out
in an angry pique one night

It was just a gun that I bought in a store
by the fishing poles and such
I just wanted to protect myself,
didn’t think about it much

It was just a gun, it was no big deal
til I pointed it one day
it’s only use, I realize now
is to take a life away

It was just a gun, he was only a man
a husband, father, brother
it only served one function:
to end the life of another

It was just a gun, she was only a kid
who lost her mom or dad
though the years go by, she can’t forget
and can’t stop feeling sad

It was just a gun that we kept in case
now the photos on the wall
and our memories are all that remain
of the loved ones we recall

It was just a gun that he used to kill
in a workplace, school or mall
now the loss of so many innocent lives
affects us, one and all

It was just a gun, he was exercising
his constitutional right
guns are here to stay says the NRA
or in Congress we will fight

It was just a gun, an inanimate object
after all, only people can kill
so dig those graves and carve those stones
while our cold dead bodies lie still

It was just a gun and we all have one
when they shoot at us we’ll shoot back
we’ll attend lots of funerals and buy lots of flowers
and our clothes will all be black

It was just a gun and we’ll kill someone
unless they kill us first
let the bullets fly, let the people die
let the world think we are cursed

It was just a gun so we all feel safe
with the power right in your hand
such a mighty thrill when “thou shalt not kill”
is forgotten throughout the land

It was just a gun, now it’s just a candle
that I light to his memory
and though time goes by, I can’t help but cry
o’er the day he was taken from me

It was just a gun that he bought in a store
Then, over the years, he bought several more
And no one checked on his mental condition
As he stocked up on belts full of ammunition.
It was just a gun that he carried one day
To floor 32 of Mandalay Bay
Then, over and over, through the hotel window
He squeezed the trigger and killed those below.

It was just a music festival
It was just a weekend trip
It was just a chance to party
Outside on the Vegas strip
Who thought we’d be running and hiding?
As the deadly bullets flew
Who thought we’d be bleeding and dying?
In an instant, our lives were through

‘Midst the “pop pop pop” and the chaos
Our dear ones were ripped away
As the families grieve what they lost
Let’s not waste another day
So let’s shout it out, all the nation
To the House and the Senate, too
Demand gun control legislation
And repeal of Amendment #2.

Remember Sandy Hook – San Bernardino – Bataclan – Pulse Orlando – Las Vegas

Repeal the Second Amendment Now!


The Dreams of Old Men

Bay Bridge

The elegant lines of the Bay Bridge, crossing from San Francisco to Oakland.


As I have visited the famed City by the Bay only a handful of times over the years, it always seems new to me.  It’s a case of what Joseph Heller referred to as jamais vu — it’s as if I’ve never seen the place before.

I first encountered San Francisco in the 1980s, during a visit with my sister, who had recently married and moved across the country to Silicon Valley.  Guidebook in hand, I boarded a northbound Caltrain in San José, determined to hoof it around the city to all the famed tourist spots.  I visited Golden Gate Park and the Exploratorium, took a cab ride down twisting Lombard Street, communed with the ghosts of poets at City Lights Bookstore and tasted the culinary delights of Chinatown.  I got on the plane back to New York with an avocado sandwich in my carry-on, singing “California Dreamin'” and vowing to return.

Two months later, I flew west again, this time with my parents.  I rode the cable cars (standing up and hanging on for dear life, trying my hardest not to lose my Fisherman’s Wharf lunch), stuffed myself into a chocolate coma at Ghirardelli’s and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito with my father.  Dad, a lifelong student of infamous American mobsters, could not pass up the excursion to Alcatraz.  I stayed behind, as I don’t much care for the turbulence of boat rides.

Ten years later, I moved to California.  And yet, I hadn’t been back to San Francisco since, unless you count passing through on the freeway or flying into SFO airport.  But this week, I found myself back in downtown SF, conducting two days of training classes.  To have seen me gawk, you’d think I’d never been there before.  Sunrise over the bay, the incredible geometry of the Bay Bridge, the late afternoon fog slowly rolling in from the ocean to slide a shroud over the high-rise buildings in the business district.

But before we headed up the peninsula to the Golden Gate, we spent the weekend with my parents down in California’s Central Valley.  We went out to dinner with my Mom and Dad twice, drove them down to our niece’s birthday party in the South Valley, and had some interesting (and mildly uncomfortable) conversations about the fact that they’re getting older and how they’ll handle their house and property.

The one conversation that moved me the most, however, occurred at sunset on Saturday night, while we were sitting on folding chairs, just the two of us, out in the driveway catching the evening breeze.  The sun slowly sunk behind the house across the street, but Dad, in his poetic way, informed me that the sun was setting over the ocean.  We watched the stars come out, and he pointed out the planet Venus, then the Big Dipper, Orion the hunter, and the W of Cassiopeia.  We were wowed by a shooting star that screamed across the sky.  I noted several light planes crawl across the heavens, red lights blinking.  “They’re very far away,” Dad told me, “at least five miles.”

And then he reminded me that he, too, once flew such planes.  He told me it’s been 40 years since he’s taken the pilot’s seat.  Flashback:  I am about 14 or 15 years old, summertime, out for a day with Dad.  We played handball on the courts at the school where he was a driver education teacher, got haircuts, and had lunch before he took me out to the airport and showed me a Cessna up close.  He wanted me to get in and go for a spin, but I was petrified and refused.  He was disgusted.  My mother had forbidden me to ever go up with my father, for fear we’d both be killed.  She was unhappy with his hobby and, eventually, forbid him from going up either.  I still remember how upset he was.  Unfortunately, it was not the only time that he agreed to give up dreams to satisfy her.

I thought this was all in the distant past.  Until Saturday night, when Dad confessed that he’d been surfing the web to look at planes for some time now, and that he’d like to purchase one.  He reminded me that pilot licenses never expire.  He might have to go up with an instructor once to show he still knows how to do it, he suggested.  And then he really got into it, explaining that planes, like cars, have fancy electronics now that didn’t exist back when he flew.  “GPS was science fiction,” he told me.  You had to plot out your route and map it out with a pencil on the chart.

My father is correct that many things have changed in 40 years, with technology not the least of it.  But one thing that undoubtedly has not changed is my mother’s attitude.  I was too cowardly to ask how he intends to get over that particular obstacle.  Could it be that he’s finally reached an age at which he’s daring enough to defy her fiery will?

“They say young men have dreams and old men have memories,” he said.  “I’ve got news for you.  Old men have dreams, too.”

Dip a wing when you fly over our house, Dad.  Just like you did when I was a kid.

I’ll be watching for you.

SF Bay Sunrise

Sunrise over San Francisco Bay

Water Signs

La Jolla Sunset

Sunset over Pacific Beach, La Jolla CA

I spent part of this week on a business trip to the southern end of our great state, training staff down in San Diego.  The ocean’s moderating influence on air temperature makes the California coast particularly appealing for inlanders like myself this time of year.  So I was surprised to learn, while watching live video feeds of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, that San Diego was under an “extreme heat advisory.”  The temperature?  85°F.  What I thought to be pleasant is apparently dangerously hot by San Diego standards.  I suppose it’s all a matter of what one is used to.

Meanwhile, back home in Sacramento, we continue to experience day after scorching day of 100° plus temperatures, as one of the hottest summers on record marches on into September.  Driving north from San Diego, we stopped for lunch in Santa Clarita before chugging over the Grapevine into the Central Valley.  The thermometer in our car displayed an outdoor temperature of 112°F.  It felt like a flashback to our three years of living out in the Mojave Desert.  Our holiday weekend promises more of the same, with the Saturday temperature forecast to hit 111° here in California’s capital.  We hide out in our tiny house and blast the A/C.  150 miles to our south, my octogenarian parents (who rarely turn on the central air in their large home) have been paying $400 per month in electricity bills just to keep the house cool enough to avoid heat stroke.

During the monotonous 1,000 mile plus round trip to and from San Diego, it was hard not to notice the roadside signs and billboards up and down the Central Valley along Interstate 5 and Highway 99.  I am a bit too young to remember the whimsical Burma Shave signs of yesteryear, but old enough to recall the goofy South of the Border signs that dot Interstate 95 through North Carolina as one approaches that tourist trap in Dillon, S.C.  Anyone remember the upside down sign emblazoned with the legend “Pedro Feex Later?”  It sounds more than a bit racist now, but as a child in the 1970s, I didn’t know any better and thought it was hilarious.  This from a New York Jewish white boy who had never met a Mexican-American and didn’t know what a tortilla is until the age of 35.

Here in California, the signs planted in the fields along the vast empty expanse of freeway cutting through Fresno, Kings and Kern Counties shy away from cheesy advertising in favor of pleas for water.  Yes, water.  You have to live here to appreciate the never-ending political and financial battles over obtaining more water for agricultural purposes.  Now, I don’t pretend to know a thing about California water politics, but I am aware of the constant shrieking and hand-wringing over the relative merits of building tunnels in the Bay Area and high-speed rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles as opposed to making greater efforts to satisfy the seemingly insatiable thirst of our farmers.  I also hear a lot about diversion of Sierra Nevada snow melt runoff away from the Central Valley to satisfy the water needs of southern California cities.  Amidst allegations of the south stealing the north’s water, I am reminded of the nation’s bitter division during the Civil War.  Indeed, there are perennial proposals for everything from California’s secession from the Union to dividing our sprawling state into two, four, six or eight states of more manageable size with greater local control.  If you don’t believe me, check out hashtag #calexit on Twitter or this recent article from the Sacramento Bee or this one from the Los Angeles Times.  In California, land of the ballot proposition, anything (no matter how outrageous) can be put to a vote.

With water being the essence of life, it is difficult for anyone to argue against it.  However, the signs along the freeway have a tendency to pander to base instincts at the expense of rational thought.  One is led to believe that providing more water to California’s agricultural interests is a “no brainer.”  But is it, really?  And so, without further ado, I present for your entertainment two of my favorite roadside signs that I have seen in multiple locations with a number of minor variations.

“Is growing food wasting water?”  The most recent version of this sign features a photo of a young boy with a puzzled expression scratching his head.  Um, well, for starters, define your terms, please.  What exactly do you mean by “growing food?”  Perhaps you are referring to California’s famous fields of lettuce, onions and tomatoes, our orange groves and almond orchards, our world-renowned vineyards.  Or perhaps what you really mean are the vast hay and alfalfa fields that suck up water to feed, not our people, but the animals that power the state’s beef cattle, dairy and poultry industries.  This type of “growing food” leaves us with a legacy of methane gas that contributes mightily to global warming (I told you it was hot) and waterways polluted with millions of tons of animal feces.  If you should happen to think I’m being overly dramatic, by all means take a ride down I-5 past Coalinga and catch a whiff as you whizz by Harris Ranch.  The hubris of that operation in posting billboards advertising its restaurant boggles my mind.  How would you like your shit today, sir?  Rare, medium or well done?

Is growing food wasting water, you ask?  I’m surprised that the state’s agricultural industry has the nerve to bring this up.  It sure is wasting water when used to sustain hungry and thirsty livestock just long enough to kill the poor beasts and turn them into hamburgers, steaks and Chicken McNuggets.  If raising animals for meat and dairy were banned from the state, we’d have more than enough water to grow the plants needed to feed our own people and export to neighboring states and to the world.  But agricultural interests don’t want you to know that.  They must think we’re ignorant, stupid or both.

“No water for valley farms = No jobs!”  Oh, goodness, you’ve got to love this one.  Again, define your terms, please.  No jobs doing what??  No jobs picking grapes, strawberries and citrus?  Check out this article in today’s paper, suggesting that a significant reduction in the number of undocumented Mexicans crossing into the United States to perform backbreaking labor in the fields at low wages has resulted in increased automation and fewer jobs.  This has nothing to do with water.

Then, of course, one must consider the folly of the paradigm that is California’s agriculture industry.  The PR people will tell you that we are “the nation’s salad bowl” and that we feed the world.  Excuse me, but why?  Anyone who thinks about our climate for even a minute would have to at least ask.  The climate of California’s Central Valley is Mediterranean, just one tick shy of desert.  We are a very dry place.  It doesn’t rain at all here for most of the year.  Our water supply depends largely on how much snow the state’s northern and eastern mountains get in the wintertime.  The phrase “seven years of drought” is bandied about regularly.  Yes, we have year-round sunshine and suitable land, but who in their right mind would plan extensive agriculture in a desert climate with little water?  All of us need a steady, reliable water supply for our homes and families.  I say people before agriculture.

Our state’s agricultural industry is largely dependent on irrigation.  That means bringing in water from elsewhere because we don’t have much here naturally.  Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to concentrate our nation’s plant-growing operations in areas that God has blessed with plenty of water instead of in the desert?  The Pacific Northwest and New England come to mind.  Why deprive the people of our cities of their water supply in order to run the Rain Birds and sprinklers that prop up the state’s agriculture?

When the sign says that no water means no jobs, what it really means is that no water means no agricultural jobs.  The state’s big agricultural interests would have us believe that we’ll all be out of work unless we kowtow to their demands to commandeer our scarce water supplies so they can keep making money.  This is a lie, pure and simple.

I have to laugh when I hear the wry suggestion that the entire valley be paved over to bring all the call centers here from India and the Philippines.  I do get it, though.  We have evolved into a post-agricultural, post-industrial economy that focuses on the information industry.  Concentrating our state’s economic efforts in that direction instead of wasting them on irrigation not only fits with the realities of climate change but would also create plenty of jobs and bring renewed prosperity to California.


Uncle Guac’s Stupid Sign of the Day

(Hand-written on green construction paper and taped to a telephone pole.  I wish I could have taken a photo of it, but I was driving.)

I will buy your house for ca$h!  Call Larry.

Oooh, Larry, now aren’t you a stud?  Put that dollar bill away, you big spender, you.  Actually, I’m not looking for ca$h.  I was kind of hoping you would pay me in chicken eggs.  Bawk!